I’ve recently noticed a trend in ongoing divorce proceedings where couples are putting their case on hold. As we enter the holiday season, people become focused on more pleasant things, like gifts, parties, and travel. And, sometimes, couples are filled with the holiday spirit, and are talking to each other kindly, perhaps giving each other much-needed space.
A little cooling-off time is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, when the delays become months or even years, that’s when the true horrors of divorce can kick in.
This Halloween, stay alert and help yourself and your family avoid some of these more common Divorce Delay Horror Story scenarios like these:
Halloween: The Rise of Watts and Epstein Credits and Reimbursements
After a long and difficult relationship, Michael and Laurie finally decided it’s time to call it quits. Laurie moves out of the family home. Rather than file for divorce right away, they decide to live apart for a bit. They settle into their separate lives and become comfortable just as things are.
Laurie has a stable job, and earns more than Michael. Michael enrolls in school and works a part time. Laurie continues to pay the mortgage on the family home where Michael continues to live, and for Michael’s car and health insurance, and cell phone. Michael pays for his other personal expenses. This continues for two years when, one Halloween, Michael showed up at Laurie’s apartment unannounced, finding Laurie with her new boyfriend. Laurie, completely enraged by the invasion of her privacy, files for divorce the next day.
Laurie and Michael agree that they separated two years earlier and had no intention of getting back together. What Michael didn’t realize was that from that date of separation, he now owes Laurie 50 percent of the mortgage payments that she made, 50 percent of the fair market rental value of the family home he’s lived in without her, and 100 percent of any personal expenses Laurie paid for him—insurances and cell phone.
Normally, Michael or his attorney could argue that, as the higher income earner, Laurie should have been paying Michael spousal support and that, in fact, the payments she made were in lieu of spousal support. Unfortunately for Michael, this argument may fall flat since spousal support can only be ordered upon a formal request of the court. Without any such filing, the judge does not have the ability to make a spousal support order retroactive to two years ago and, thereby, cancel out or reduce what Michael owes to Laurie (potentially). Michael is, at worst, completely out of luck, and at best, in a very tenuous position to win on his argument.
Friday the 13th: The Status Quo Massacre
Now let’s take a look at Alice and Jason. Alice left a promising career in nursing to care for their twin girls until they started school. When the girls turned 5, Alice started looking at returning to work, but she had allowed her license to expire and needed some refresher courses. After several home care provider rejections, Alice decided she wanted to continue focusing on their kids.
Jason, who had been working two jobs to make ends meet over the last five years, had been looking forward to the Alice’s income, and was none-to-pleased to learn it was not going to happen. This proved to be a constant battle between Jason and Alice. Finally, they decided to divorce.
Concerned about managing the costs of the divorce process, and hoping to stay focused on their daughters, they chose to mediate their divorce. The mediator gave Alice and Jason instructions on documents to gather and the financial disclosures that were required. The mediator helped them start a discussion about how to manage their household expenses and sharing time with the girls, in the short run, while they figured everything out. The mediator recommended that they each have their own attorney advising them prior to signing any agreements.
The divorce was started with the initial court filings, and target dates were set to complete their financial disclosures and start their discussions. All of this work cost them, in mediation and attorney fees, just under $6,000.00. Alice and Jason quickly found themselves feeling overwhelmed with the documents and dealing with the difficult discussions, that, after talking, they decided to put their divorce on “hold” for a bit.
Jason moved into their rental property at the lake, to clear his head. Since the girls were still pretty young and very attached to Alice, Jason figured it was best to give them their space. He would reach out to Alice each month to visit the girls for a day, or have them visit him at the lake. Alice kept the girls pretty busy with activities, so Jason’s visits were limited to one or two days each month. In return, Jason would send Alice $6,000 each month (based on the first month of the divorce process – he’d rather pay Alice than the lawyers and the mediator) for her expenses with the girls. If Alice needed more, Jason was happy to provide a little extra, hoping to create good will so that Alice wouldn’t continue with the divorce. This continued for just under a year.
Sadly, on one lake trip, one of the girls came back with a bad bump on her head, explaining that she was playing with her sister in the lake, jumping off the dock, slipped, and bumped her head. Where was daddy? Daddy was in the lake house with his girlfriend. So, Alice reached out to her attorney to get things moving again, faster and more aggressively, requesting full custody of the girls, spousal and child support, and legal fees. Her argument in court? Jason already had set a visitation precedent of one to two days per month since they separated and a minimum payable amount of $6,000+/month in support. Yikes!
Nightmare on Elm Street: The Monstrous Judgment Liens
As our last horror story of delays in divorce, Nancy and Fred decided on a do-it-yourself divorce. They pretty much agreed on everything, except for their rental property on Elm Street. Fred and Nancy agreed that they would sign off on the divorce, asking that the court hold off on any orders related to the Elm Street condo. The put that issue on hold while the dust settled on the divorce. Their rental income paid for the mortgage, so they figured no harm no foul—they would return to the condo issue at a later time.
Unfortunately, Fred got into some legal trouble that resulted in judgment liens being placed on the condo. It wasn’t until Nancy’s loan application for a new home was denied that she learned about the judgment liens. Realizing that she and Fred completely forgot to deal with the condo after the divorce, Nancy sought a lawyer to help her get her share of the value of the condo, minus Fred’s judgment liens. Sadly, for Nancy, the market had dropped drastically and, with the judgment liens, there was no way for Fred to pull money from a refinance and pay her what she wanted. Fred decided to file for bankruptcy, which meant, even if Nancy won in divorce court, she would not be able to collect from Fred. What a nightmare!
What Did We Learn?
Each of these stories ended horribly for one or both of the spouses. But it didn’t have to. Ever wonder about those horror movies – why do people walk towards the scary sound? How do they not know it will not end well?
Couples do have the option of creating temporary agreements to address predictable complications that may arise with the passage of time. If the basis for those agreements are not correct, there’s also ways to give the court the ability to adjust the agreements when more accurate information comes to light. You can get creative so that temporary delays in your process don’t become, potentially expensive, nightmares later on. Talk to a family lawyer before you decide to hit pause in your divorce process.
About the author
Diana L. Martinez has received “Super Lawyer” designation each year since 2016, is a Eureka Award recipient and is a faculty trainer with the International Academy of Professionals. She is an experienced collaborative divorce lawyer handling cases throughout California, with offices in Corona, Riverside, Newport Beach and San Diego.